By Jill Penn
During the recent debate between U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., and GOP challenger Herschel Walker, a University of Georgia student asked a question about the college debt crisis. After responding that debt forgiveness is needed, Warnock acknowledged we won’t solve the problem unless we reform the way higher education is funded in the United States. Most people understand the cost of a college education today is much higher than it used to be; few people understand why.
State funding for higher education in Georgia first fell below 70% at the beginning of Gov. Sonny Perdue’s administration in 2004. A steep decline occurred after the 2008 recession, when a decrease in state tax revenue led to budget cuts and furloughs of faculty and staff. In 2009, the University System of Georgia imposed on students a special institution fee to make up for decreased appropriations. When the economy later improved, the fee was kept in place, and state appropriations stayed below 50%. Years of economic prosperity did not put an end to austerity.
Although the economy was healthy when Gov. Brian Kemp took office in 2019, he found ways to implement more budget cuts and reallocations instead of reversing 20 years of austerity. In December 2019, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget requested that all state agencies think strategically about workforce needs and to maximize efficiencies. This resulted in the USG’s implementation of a “critical hire justification” process for all 26 colleges and universities in the system.
The process required additional levels of approval prior to posting full-time positions, with approval only for those deemed critical. In its guidance, the USG stated that “many positions within the university system are important to institutional success but would not be considered critical. Important positions will not be approved while the critical hire process is in effect.”
As a result, institutions were not allowed to replace employees who retired or left their positions for better-paying jobs. Instead, remaining employees took on additional labor without increases in their pay. In practice, the critical hire justification process led to a vicious downward spiral.
As employees became dissatisfied with their unreasonable workloads and low pay, even more workers left their positions for better opportunities. In a thriving economy and after decades of underfunding, this unnecessary policy exacerbated an already difficult financial situation for Georgia’s public colleges and universities.
Austerity cuts are not only bad for morale; they also lower the quality of education we can offer our students. On one Georgia campus, faculty members who taught lab-embedded lecture courses were forced to take on a 25% increase in teaching loads without any increase in pay, Yet, there were the same expectations for service, advising, scholarship, and publications. They worked directly with students in the classroom or laboratory for up to 18 hours a week, which leaves too little time for planning lessons, grading, advising students, writing recommendation letters, mentoring student research projects, serving on committees, attending mandatory meetings, writing grant proposals and publishing papers.
The COVID-19 pandemic only made matters worse. In June 2020, Gov. Kemp signed a budget that included a 10% cut to higher education for the next fiscal year.
Research by the United Campus Workers of Georgia showed that by 2021, USG institutions suffered a net loss of more than 4,000 jobs (excluding Georgia Tech). When jobs were lost, the work of former employees still needed to get done — once again, without additional compensation for those who took on extra duties. Exemplifying this stretch-out, one college in Georgia split the duties of a recently retired administrative staff member among three faculty. Each faculty member earned a course release for taking on the additional service work, and a part-time instructor was hired to teach their classes.
Exploitation of part-time instructors has been a long-term problem in academia. The reliance on contingent positions, a stopgap measure in the 1960s and 1970s, has become a permanent management strategy, even at times when the economy is thriving. Furthermore, the stereotypical adjunct professor in 1970, a specialist with a full-time nonacademic job who shared professional expertise by teaching part time, is now a rare exception to the norm of part-timers who would prefer and constantly seek full-time or tenured positions in academia. They are dedicated to their fields and to teaching but often lack a livable wage, health insurance, or even an office space.
Increasingly difficult working conditions — combined with few cost-of-living adjustments, salary compression, loss of tenure protections, and forced in-person work during the COVID-19 pandemic without reasonable precautions like universal masking — have led campus workers to join the “great resignation.”
The loss of workers has made it obvious how impossible it is for one person to do the work of three. Workers at Georgia’s 26 public universities report widespread declines in the ability of their institutions to operate. With understaffed departments unable to fulfill the basic needs of the college, supplies requested in March were not ordered until June; elevators went months without being fixed, even though students and employees with disabilities needed to get around campus; and ceiling leaks were left unrepaired while a handwritten note affixed to a large trash barrel warned workers not to move the can that catches the water whenever it rains.
We must reform the way we fund higher education because public education is a common good that is worth funding for the benefit of all. Education is rarely the great equalizer, the remedy for inequality, or the tool to fight poverty that it should be. But imagine the benefits to individuals and society that could result from fully funding education for all. Accessible public education is necessary for a robust democracy, civic engagement, and media literacy in a society bombarded with disinformation.
It is in everyone’s best interest to contribute to the education of future generations by fully supporting a higher education system in which workers and students have a real voice in decision-making.